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Q&A: Alumnus Paul Whitaker discusses lighting designer role on ‘Alice in Wonderland’

Paul Whitaker smiles for his headshot. The alumnus is the lighting designer for the Children’s Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “Alice in Wonderland,” which opens Tuesday. (Courtesy of Children’s Theatre Company)

“Alice in Wonderland”

Feb. 13 - March 31

Children's Theatre Company

By Victoria Munck

Feb. 12, 2024 11:41 a.m.

This post was updated Feb. 13 at 7:57 p.m.

Paul Whitaker is lighting the roses red.

The alumnus served as the lighting designer for the upcoming production of “Alice in Wonderland” by the Tony Award-winning Children’s Theatre Company. Opening in Minneapolis on Tuesday, the play follows a classic tale known well by all: young Alice follows the White Rabbit into the mystically wild world of Wonderland, where she meets a delightfully eccentric ensemble, including the harebrained Mad Hatter and frightful Queen of Hearts. Through Whitaker’s lighting work, however, he intends to bring the beloved story a new life of its own.

Whitaker spoke with the Daily Bruin’s Victoria Munck about his approach to the famed adventure, as well as what sets children’s productions apart from other work in the industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

[Related: UCLA alumnus Erin Dubreuil brings talent, passion to musical theater]

Daily Bruin: “Alice in Wonderland” is an iconic story that has been brought to life countless times. What aspects of preexisting productions are you hoping to highlight with your work, and in what ways are you hoping to make it your own?

Paul Whitaker: It’s a little tricky whenever you approach this sort of iconic story. There’s so many versions of it, and people obviously have really strong connections to certain versions. Now, I think the old Disney version obviously plays a role, so there’s all these associations people have. This particular production goes back to the original text a little bit, but it has some really fun and theatrical elements. It’s being performed specifically for kids, so it’s really intentionally engaging. It’s very bold and bright.

DB: This play carries viewers through many different worlds as Alice meets a variety of distinct characters. How does your lighting capture the changing tones of these environments?

PW: I worked very closely with the set designer and director originally, and the set designer came up with the great palette of this world. The story is sort of theatrical from the start, and the scenery was intentionally left so that I could have a big impact in terms of lighting. There’s a beautiful forced perspective black-and-white checkered floor and then a huge cyclorama at the back where we can change colors. We decided to go for these huge blocks of color, so each scene has a very signature look that typically goes along with the main character of that scene. Obviously, when we go to the Queen of Hearts, there’s this huge, bold red thing. It’s really fun because, just with lighting, it keeps on changing from scene to scene.

DB: How does your process change when you’re lighting for a children’s production, as opposed to a show with an older audience?

PW: It does not necessarily change what I do. What I will say is that what I love about children’s shows is that typically, imagination is built in. They’re often not just straight living room dramas; they often have an element of the fantastical, which is obviously always fun as a lighting designer.

The other part of it is that when we do these shows, we start doing previews where they’ll add an audience at night. Then the next day, you can respond to the audience’s reactions and maybe change things during rehearsal. What’s beautiful about when you’re working in a children’s theater is that the kids are the best audience. They’re so honest. They tell you when something’s great, and you can totally tell when somebody’s disinterested. I think adult audiences are much more trained to be passive and not show their emotion. Kids are also great because they often give a lot of feedback, just out loud for performers. I think that the performers can really feel the energy of the kids. In that sense, I think it’s really fun to design for kids. It’s really great.

[Related: Winter theater preview: ‘The Wiz,’ ‘Chicago’ come to Hollywood Pantages Theatre]

DB: What are you looking forward to audiences experiencing at the production’s upcoming premiere?

PW: I think it’s a really, really fun ride for the kids. I think there’s so many great scenes, and the actors are just so amazing. There’s a great core of actors in the show. Some of them play multiple roles, like the tea party scene with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter – they both play multiple roles. They’re such great comedic physical actors. There’s a lot of great slapstick, a lot of great fun in the show. I just saw a run-through two days ago, and it’s just such a joy to watch.

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Victoria Munck | Theater | film | television editor
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
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